La bible

‘A sense of discovery’: Philip Pullman on religion, school plays and The Book of Dust

Theatre

As an adaptation of La Belle Sauvage arrives at the Bridge theatre, the author explains why His Dark Materials was better as a play than a film – and how he learned to write for children and adults

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, adapted by Bryony Lavery, is being staged at the Bridge theatre in London, directed by Nicholas Hytner. How did this adaptation come about?
We had lunch together about three years ago but then the great lockdown happened. I wasn’t able to do what I had done for the National Theatre production [of His Dark Materials, also directed by Hytner in 2003-04] and go up to watch things. One thing I knew that Nick, in particular, would do well was tell the story with a brisk directness and clarity.

You have spoken of how much you liked the NT’s two-part adaptation of His Dark Materials, but so much had to be left out from the trilogy.
It was their thing, not mine. I’m responsible for the book but that didn’t have to be withdrawn or banned just because there was an adaptation made of it. Every different adaptation to every different medium has its own possibilities. His Dark Materials has been a stage play, a radio play, a movie, a TV adaptation, an audiobook and a graphic novel in France. Somebody the other day asked if they could make it into a ballet. I said yes, of course. I’d be most intrigued.

I went to a run-through of La Belle Sauvage and there were some parts of the story that hadn’t made it on to the stage. I expected that because it’s long and fairly episodic – more like a romance than a novel, in the medieval sense.

How does the NT’s His Dark Materials compare with the film starring Nicole Kidman?
The cast [of the film] was terribly good but I think they lost the story a bit … [Film] costs a lot more, which means that there’s a great deal more corporate anxiety … There’s a lot more talking and arguing, a lot more diplomacy going on, which didn’t really help the telling of the story. And then I don’t think the studio realised what the story was about. When they got to the part where they realised that it’s actually anti-religious there was a collective shiver, I think, and that’s really why there wasn’t a second film. So to compare the film and stage play, I was far happier with the play.

‘The questions religion poses and pretends to give us the answer to are important ones. Why are we here? How did we get here? What is good and what is evil?’ … Philip Pullman. Photograph: Tom Nicholson/PinPep/PA

What first led you to create your heroine Lyra and her world almost three decades ago?
I started writing Northern Lights in 1993 and it was published in 1995. I had been thinking not about that particular story but about the issue of growing up – the difference between what William Blake terms as innocence and experience. I had been teaching boys and girls of 11, 12 and 13 in a middle school in Oxford. It’s an age of huge intellectual curiosity, tremendously exciting but very troubling as well. I also remembered my own adolescence and how important it was for me. It was a thrilling stage of my life with the sense of a world opening, like Lyra with the new world.

What is it about this multiverse, and this set of characters, that pulls you back time and again?
The sense of discovery. I wanted to know more about daemons and their relation to the human part of them. I wanted to think about the idea of consciousness and it seemed to me that I had a ready-made metaphor in front of me: I was using Lyra’s story to think with. In the third part of The Book of Dust, which is what I’m writing now, Lyra is looking for her own imagination because it seems to have gone missing. This involves a lot of thinking about the imagination, what it is and how it works.

‘I had a ready-made metaphor in front of me’ … Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra in Nicholas Hytner’s production of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre in 2004. Photograph: Denis Jones/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Does the news, and politics, affect what you write?
I don’t set out to write a state of the world book but any task that is going to take you years, and which you’re going to take seriously, will engage your deepest beliefs and your most strongly felt emotions and convictions. So they will show up whether you intend them to or not.

But I seldom, if ever, write in the first person. I almost always write as if I’m a camera looking at [the characters]. I find writing in the first person cramping and claustrophobic because it’s just one person’s view. I want to get out and see what’s happening around them.

So you’ll never write a memoir?
I’ve threatened to write my memoirs but mainly to alarm my friends and my family. Here’s a new idea: you ought to be able to take out insurance against being written about in somebody’s memoir.

How do you manage to write for children and adults in the same sentence?
That’s something I’ve always valued. It comes from the time I was a teacher and used to do a school play every year. What I realised very quickly is who the audience is: it’s not just the children or their parents but the other teachers and the dinner ladies and everybody else involved. It’s not about having silly slapstick for the children and clever wordplay for the grownups. If you do something successfully, everyone will enjoy it in a different way.

Did you have to work very hard at writing this way?
I’d had 12 years of practice by doing the plays at the school but also the practice of retelling the Iliad and the Odyssey in classes, which I did year after year. So I was making the Iliad into a story that I could tell in half-hour chunks and in doing that, you learn what sort of storyteller you are, what you can do and what you’re not good at. I know I’m no good at making people laugh but I can make you want to know what happens next.

As an atheist, you revisit biblical stories and Christian beliefs in your writing. Does religion feed your creative preoccupations?
Yes. It tells a cosmic story with you in the middle of it, which is huge and dramatic with enormous consequences. That’s what I valued about the Christian story. My grandfather was a clergyman so I went to church a great deal and at a time when they still used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its rhythms are still with me, as well as the rhythms of the psalms and the King James Bible.

The questions that religion poses and pretends to give us the answer to are important ones. Why are we here? How did we get here? Were we created? What is good and what is evil? Does it matter if I do something evil? Who will forgive me? All these questions are hugely important to us psychologically, emotionally, in every other way. The fact that I don’t believe in the doctrines of the Christian church any more doesn’t mean I deny their importance.

‘When they realised that it’s actually anti-religious there was a collective shiver’ … Nicole Kidman in film adaptation The Golden Compass. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/newline.wireimage

You have used your platform on Twitter in campaigning ways but some months ago you issued an apology after an intervention in the Kate Clanchy controversy. Has that mistake changed the way you relate to social media?
It’s reminded me that Twitter is not a person. When you’re talking to a human being, you have a much wider bandwidth – you can look at their eyes, hear their tone of voice. You don’t get that on Twitter. You just get 280 characters and it’s easy to misunderstand people because we are speaking through a very narrow tube.

I still love Twitter for the fact that it lets me praise things. If I see a film I enjoyed, read a book I liked, hear a piece of music, I like to be able to say so. That sort of thing is immensely valuable, and it’s also valuable because you can make jokes but that’s when it begins to get dangerous because not everybody has a sense of humour.

You have spoken about the dangers of what William Blake called “single vision” [religiously, politically, scientifically]. Doesn’t a platform like Twitter encourage this singularity?
You can try to be subtle in a medium that isn’t subtle but it does depend on the person who’s reading it having a sense of more than a single vision themselves. It depends on things like irony and implication. Somebody once said we should have a typeface for an ironic tone, a bit like italics. You could print in that so you’re not taken literally.

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